From up close, the catastrophic destruction of the Kakhovka dam in Ukraine appears worse than how it’s depicted in news reports and far off satellite imagery, according to U.N. officials who assessed conditions in the area on Friday.
“We have been visiting this morning with the authorities the communities, the small villages along the river that have been completely submerged by the flooding,” said Denise Brown, one of several U.N. officials who addressed journalists via satellite from the town of Bilozerka, on the west bank of Dnipro River.
“The status situation is dramatic,” said Brown, humanitarian coordinator in Ukraine for the U.N. office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs, OCHA.
“This is a town that is five kilometers from the front line,” Brown said. “Daily shelling, including yesterday, and now because of the destruction of the bridge, which is a result of the war, and now this flooding, which came in the middle of the night. It came very fast, very quickly and people were totally taken by surprise.
“We visited a few homes this morning with people who are, as you can imagine, totally distraught by this latest catastrophe to hit them,” she said. “But I must say, as always, they are incredibly resilient and vowing to stay in their homes.”
Ukrainian authorities report at least 80 towns and villages in the Kherson region are fully or partially flooded, as well as thousands of hectares of agricultural land, with some 17,000 people in government-controlled areas affected by the flooding.
Shabia Mantoo, spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency, said, “Many thousands more in the areas under the temporary military control of the Russian Federation, to [which] humanitarian organizations currently have no access, have also been affected.”
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reports that it has repeatedly asked the Russian Federation for access to the territories it occupies.
“The Russian Federation has denied us this access,” said Jeremy Laurence, spokesman for the OHCHR. “Not only OHCHR monitors, but humanitarian actors cannot get into the occupied territories.”
He added, “We reiterate the broader U.N. call to the Russian Federation to grant access to the occupied territories, to assist clinicians who have suffered from the humanitarian catastrophe caused by the destruction of the Khakhova dam.”
Humanitarian agencies report that Ukrainian authorities, the International Red Cross, as well as U.N., and non-governmental organizations reacted quickly after the dam broke on June 6 by bringing in relief supplies and aiding victims caught in the disaster.
Mantoo said the UNHCR was participating in an inter-agency convoy of five trucks that will be delivering essential relief supplies Friday and Saturday to the worst affected areas of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.
“With interagency partner agencies, we are also currently carrying out damage assessments to understand the scale of the impact of the flooding,” she said.
After humanitarian agencies get on top of the short-term risks, they will have to concentrate on dealing with the more complex long-term risks threatening the local communities.
OCHA coordinator Brown cited the dangers posed by unexploded landmines in the heavily infested Kherson region as a major long-term problem. She said a U.N. mine expert was working with the U.N. system to produce a map of areas where mines were likely to be located and to communicate the threats posed by those weapons to the population, especially to children, who are most at risk of being killed and maimed.
“Mines may have moved and so when the flood waters recede, there may be mines where there were not mines before, which means there are not any markings. And this is a significant risk,” she said.
Laurence agreed noting that “the whole flood zone is a mine-contaminated area.”
However, he added that circumstances regarding the destruction of the dam remained unclear. Therefore, he said that it was “premature to examine the question whether a war crime may have been committed” by Russia in its attacks on the dam and its ongoing shelling of people trying to recover from the disaster.
“We reiterate our call for an independent, impartial, thorough, and transparent investigation,” he said.